McGraw Hill Summit: Zucker Defends CNBC, Jim Cramer

NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker Wednesday defended CNBC against criticism that it failed to adequately predict the crisis on Wall Street. Speaking at the McGraw-Hill media summit, Zucker said that Comedy Central's Jon Stewart had been "incredibly unfair to CNBC and the business media."

"CNBC is a spectacular organization and in particular Jim Cramer," he said.The NBC U executive also said there had been no evidence of a ratings decline at the business network in light of Stewart's attack. Zucker said everybody was looking for a scapegoat and to point the finger in light of the economic crisis. "What is going on now is absurd," he added. Speaking at the McGraw Hill Media Summit Wednesday, Zucker also said that the media was not to blame for the Iraq war or the Wall St. meltdown.

He also jokingly pointed out that Business Week, part of McGraw-Hill and hosts of the media get together had picked AIG as one of its best stocks of 2007.

Zucker used the platform to further reinforce that the idea that NBC Universal is now primarily a cable programmer. "Sixty percent of our operating profit comes from our cable networks. We are first and foremost a cable company and our portfolio is second to none."

"USA is one of the five networks; ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and USA." "You have to be on USA if you want to reach general entertainment viewers," he added, clearly positioning that network to capture ad dollars that may trickle from the broadcast networks this year.

On the advertising upfront, Zucker said the NBC network is expecting to sell less inventory this season, though he said that decision would be a factor of market demand. "There is a lot of uncertainty out there and quite frankly some paralysis on the part of advertisers who aren't sure where budgets are going to be. I expect it to move slowly and that some of the broadcast networks may not move as much inventory this season." He said cable would continue to do well even in 2009.

Zucker repeatedly went back to the topic of how the company had to reinvent itself to avoid the fate of newspapers, local TV stations and Detroit, which he said had not adequately adapted to change. He went on to say that revenue from digital operations had improved somewhat. He famously said that big media companies had to be careful not to exchange digital pennies to for analog dollars. He revised that thought, to upgrade pennies to "digital dimes." "I don't know if we ever get to the one for one replacements but that's O.K. if you can fix your cost structure." When asked about the battle over content between CBS Corp's and online video provider Hulu, he said that the company was pursuing legal avenues and that he expected it to be resolved soon.

The executive also defended against criticism that NBC was any less of a network because it had chosen to program the Tonight Show at 10.00 pm. He said no-one criticized Fox or CW for only programming two hours of primetime a night. He also said that given fragmentation, people ought to look at the success of NBC programming in its totality, adding such things as views on Hulu views and iTunes.

Zucker did as much as he could to dispel speculation about the future of NBC Universal ownership. He repeated that NBC had benefitted greatly from being part of GE and that the discipline had "allowed us to see things before others see them." He said the relationship had also enabled the company to go after the Olympics and NFL and acquire channels such as Oxygen. "We're in an era where everybody questions everything and everybody throws ideas out there..."I hope we're there for a long time. Nothing lasts forever. I think NBC Universal has benefitted greatly from being part of GE. I hope that continues." Before adding, "I believe it will."

Speaking about the relationship with GE chief excutive Jeffrey Immelt, Zucker said he appraises him on things that he might read about in the press, but that his ultimate boss had no role in such things as programming decisions. "Look, he doesn't get involved in program decisions or editorial decisions at all and usually I talk to him about major strategic decision that changes the nature of the company."